The drinking dens are spilling out
There's staggering in the square
There's lads and lasses falling about
And a crackling in the air
Down around the dungeon doors
The shelters and the queues
Everybody's looking for
Somebody's arms to fall into
And it's what it is
It's what it is now

There's frost on the graves and the monuments
But the taverns are warm in town
People curse the government
And shovel hot food down
The lights are out in city hall
The castle and the keep
The moon shines down upon it all
The legless and asleep

And it's cold on the tollgate
With the wagons creeping through
Cold on the tollgate
God knows what I could do with you
And it's what it is
It's what it is now

The garrison sleeps in the citadel
With the ghosts and the ancient stones
High up on the parapet
A Scottish piper stands alone
And high on the wind
The highland drums begin to roll
And something from the past just comes
And stares into my soul

And it's cold on the tollgate
With the Caledonian blues
Cold on the tollgate
God knows what I could do with you
And it's what it is
It's what it is now
What it is
It's what it is now

There's a chink of light, there's a burning wick
There's a lantern in the tower
Wee willie winkie with a candlestick
Still writing songs in the wee wee hours
On Charlotte Street
I take A walking stick from my hotel
The ghost of Dirty Dick
Is still in search of little nell
And it's what it is
It's what it is now
Oh, it's what it is
What it is now

Lyrics submitted by redmax

What It Is Lyrics as written by Mark Knopfler

Lyrics © BMG Rights Management, Royalty Network, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc.

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What It Is song meanings
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  • +3
    General CommentKnopfler is truly as much a folk mucisian as he is a rock star.

    Songs like this "explain" why..
    mobileinfantryon August 13, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General CommentThis song, I must conclude, is about Edinburgh. Numerous references (Tollgate, Caledonian Blues, Charlotte Street, the parapet [which refers to the Castle]). Also, nice Dickens reference (Dirty Dick in search of Little Nell). I think it's brilliantly atmospheric.
    ButtOfMalmseyon May 17, 2002   Link
  • +2
    General CommentJust reading the lyrics out loud and not muffing them is a task! I love this song, in part because of the wonderful word pictures it paints. The tollgate, the moon shining down on the legless and asleep, Caledonian blues, on and on. A history recounted in a few minutes time. Clever, complicated and always so rich in meaning- wrapped up in a lovely melody. Class. Pure class.
    caitriona4on January 05, 2013   Link
  • +2
    My InterpretationI'm pretty certain that most of this song refers to Edinburgh, Scotland. Lots of drinking dens & taverns, graves and the monuments. There's the castle and the keep, and even tollgate. "...the ancient stones" refer to the Stone of Scone, the Scottish coronation stone that was broken in half and sits in Edinburgh Castle.

    On Charlotte Street I take
    A walking stick from my hotel
    The ghost of Dirty Dick
    Is still in search of Little Nell

    Charlotte Street is near the Castle, in the Edinburgh New Town, and Dirty Dick's is pub near there.
    GazzerMPon June 25, 2013   Link
  • +2
    My InterpretationThe writer is observing the daily pettiness of human behavior, while the importance of solitude and loneliness are on his mind. On this particular night, people are not just eating, they're "shoveling food", getting drunk, complaining, as if they didn't have any real worries.

    All the while, the writer is observing "frost on the graves" and people waiting in line at the homeless shelters and soup lines.

    They are protected in the night by the garrison and the toll taker. But, the garrison is asleep watching over nothing but old ghosts, and the toll taker is cold and has someone on his mind.

    It's modern times. Places change, but, people stay the same. The dungeon doors, the castle, the horse and wagons all suggest that people have been doing the same meaningless activities for hundreds of years. So, what's changed? Here, Knopfler hints at the Iron Hand from his final DS album.

    A lone piper plays the national instrument of Scotland and sets the songs tone, as the writer is thinking about someone he's lost. His observances of a carefree society in the midst of loss and despair yields the answer, "It's what it is." There's people with small worries, and then there's him.

    The highland drummer joins the piper as the wind blows stronger, triggering the writer to shiver and remember a person from his past. With the "ghosts and the ancient stones" previously mentioned, this "something from the past just comes and stares into my soul" is likely someone who has died.

    A brief mention of the Scottish Blues is another hint that the writer is lamenting for someone he's lost.

    In the wee small hours as the lantern's are about to burn out, the writer confesses that he's been up all night writing lyrics. In an instant, he's back out on the street searching. He's still amongst the ancients. He and the ghost of Nathaniel Bentley (nicknamed Dirty Dick after his refusal to bath for the remainder of his life, as he grieved the death of his fiancé on their wedding day in the late 1700's) are still in search of Little Nell. The writer is in search of his lost love, just as Bentley kept in search of his. Bentley never threw away their wedding cake, allowing it to decay on the dining room table. Bentley used to wait by his fiancé's grave for her return.

    Knopfler purposely references Bentley, as he too in this song is still searching for those lost "arms to fall into".

    For those who have lost someone dear to them, and are forced to observe the daily petty behavior of people, there is only but one thing to say in the end, "It is what it is". It's what it is, now.
    StevenPascalion November 12, 2014   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI was interested in the line "the ghost of Dirty Dick is still in search of little Nell", I didn´t really find out what it means, although I read Charles Dickens´ "Old curiosity shop"(not in English but in German)(great book) where Little Nell is the main charakter.
    Does anybody know what relation Charles Dickens had to Edinburgh, because I couldn´t find out yet.
    Becky385on August 02, 2002   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThe greatest Knopfler song ever. Simple as that! Love the fiddle with electric guitar combo, which Knopfler does so very well. Highly satisfying for the evocative lyrics and inimitable music.
    diluna25on May 25, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThe song mixes up the references to "Dirty Dick" and Little Nell, the latter a character in Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. "Dirty Dick" was a London ironmonger who went crazy when his fiancee, Nell, died the day before the wedding. There is a Dick Swiveller who looks for Little Nell. "Dirty Dick" may be looking for Nell, but not in the pages of Dickens' novel.
    logomachonon July 06, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentFrom the dramatic build of the opening drums to the exquisite Knopfler guitar work, to the wordsmithmanship of a genius, this song conjures the atmosphere of times and places of old. I'll be playing this song the next time I roam the grounds of Edinburgh. For some reason, the line " High on a parapet
    A Scottish piper stands alone" has always sent shivers up my spine. Probably my favorite line of any song ever............
    rollingsalmonon August 20, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentTheir is also the line "wee willie winkie with the candle stick/ still writin' songs in the wee wee hour" which is from some movie. I love the guitar solo.
    Tmo2199on March 07, 2006   Link

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